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The Mysterious Vanishing Battalion of WWI

War brings with it many things. Death, destruction, chaos, loss; these are all innate features of battle. War also has the tendency to draw about itself rich folklore, mysteries, and amazing stories from the battlefield. One of the most well-known and certainly more bizarre tales of wartime mystery comes from the bloody battlefields of WWI, when an entire battalion of men is said to have marched bravely into battle to fight their enemy, only to inexplicably disappear without a trace off the face of the earth.

The setting for the incident was the battlegrounds of World War I, in particular the Gallipoli campaign, which took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula of the Ottoman Empire from 25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916. The objective of the campaign was for the Allied powers of Britain and France to launch an ultimately unsuccessful naval and amphibious assault against the Turks to secure the Dardanelles, which is a strait that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea and served as an essential sea route for their ally, Russia. At the time, the strait was controlled by Turkey, an ally of Germany’s. The eventual plan was to push through and forcefully claim the city of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), which was the Ottoman Empire’s capital, and expel the Turks from the war.

Fighting during the Gallipoli campaign

Fighting during the Gallipoli campaign

In the midst of the bloody campaign, there came the Sandringhams, a military unit that had been created in 1908 by King Edward VII, consisting of men that had been recruited from the staff of the royal Sandringham Estate. They would later be included with the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, or “The Norfolks”. The regiment was rather unique in that it was one of the first examples in the British forces of what came to be referred to as “Pal’s Battalions,” which were military units made up of men who had all been recruited from the same civilian group, for instance the same town , company, or in this case royal estate. These were close-knit groups comprised of men who knew each other well, and in many cases had even grown up together. In the case of the Sandringhams, they were about to go to war together.

The Norfolk Regiment, made up of 250 men, 16 officers, and led by Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, set out for the Gallipoli Peninsula from Liverpool on July 30, 1915 aboard the SS Aquitainia and arrived at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli on 10 August 1915 amidst heavy fighting. They did not have to wait long to see battle themselves. On August 12, just two days after their arrival, the 5th Norfolks, as part of the 163rd Brigade, were ordered to launch an offensive against Turkish positions holding the Anafarta Plain in order to clear them out ahead of a planned Allied advance. From the beginning the mission was faced with setbacks. The men were in poor physical condition due to the rigors of their journey, the side effects of inoculations, a lack of sleep, and the harsh, brutally hot and arid climate of the area. Many of them were sick with dysentery, and general morale was low. In addition, the advance was to be carried out in broad daylight, with poor supplies, inadequate water, and with inaccurate maps, against seasoned Turkish fighters who knew the land well and were deeply dug in along ridges. Additionally, the objective of the mission was not made particularly clear, with some of the men thinking that they were to attack the village of Anafarta Saga rather than clear the way for the British assault. It is perhaps no surprise that the attack turned into a massacre.

The Norfolk Regiment

The Norfolk Regiment

The exhausted, thirsty, and sick men first made an error and turned the wrong way, separating them from the larger 163rd Brigade. Realizing their mistake, they nevertheless prepared to advance against Kavak Tepe ridge without support or reinforcements. When they did, they were immediately met with a rain of machine gun fire and picked off by numerous snipers entrenched in the ridge and sitting in trees. The Norfolk Regiment bravely pressed on into this maelstrom of blood and bullets, actually managing to push the enemy back towards a forest that was ablaze from artillery fire. Beauchamp and his men continued the charge into the burning forest, and that was the last anyone would ever see of them. The battalion would never emerge from the forest, none would come back to tell the tale, and by most accounts they had simply vanished from the face of the earth. It is from this charge into the smoke and trees that the mystique and mystery of the vanished Royal Norfolk Regiment really takes off.

It was assumed at the time that the men had been captured by Turkish forces and held as prisoners of war. The British made inquiries to the Turkish government as to whether they had taken the men as prisoners, but they denied having any knowledge of the Norfolks. When the war was over, the British demanded the return of the soldiers, but again the Turks adamantly denied having them, and indeed declared that they had never even heard of them. The War Graves Commission carried out searches for war dead on the battlefields of Gallipoli in 1918, which would meet with mixed success, as 14,000 of the 36,000 Commonwealth soldiers who had died in the bloody campaign were never found, and another 13,000 were uncovered in unidentified graves. During one of these searches, a Rev Charles Pierrepoint Edwards found a Norfolks regimental cap badge, along with 180 bodies scattered about around a farmhouse surrounded by the wooded area in which the men had last been seen. 122 of the bodies were found to have shoulder badges that identified them as members of the Norfolks, and one was even identified by his shoulder flashes as Lt-Col Beuchamp himself. At the time this was seen as definitive proof as to the fate of the regiment, and it was a pretty closed case, yet the case of the “Vanished Battalion” would only get weirder in the ensuing years.

Turkish machine gunners during the fighting at Gallipoli

Turkish machine gunners during the fighting at Gallipoli

The case of the Vanishing Battalion remained pretty much closed until the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in April 1965, when a New Zealand WWI veteran by the name of Frederick Reichardt, along with two of his compatriots, came forward with their own alleged first-hand account of what he saw on that fateful day. The story was recounted by Reichardt during a reunion of veterans and offered a bizarre, if controversial, twist on the tale of the missing battalion.

Reichardt went on record saying that they had been sappers with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and that they had been operating in an area near a Turkish position known as Hill 60, which was not far from where the lost Norfolk Regiment had been waging war. The sapper claimed they noticed between 6 and 8 odd, grayish brown, “loaf shaped” clouds hovering over the battlefield. The weird clouds were described as being completely still even in the face of high winds at the time. Beneath these clouds was reportedly another, even larger and denser looking cloud that was estimated as being around 800 feet in length and around 200 feet high. This massive cloud was allegedly hugging the ground over a dry creek bed when the Norfolk Regiment approached, and without hesitation they proceeded to march directly into it. When the regiment had disappeared into the cloud, Reichardt claimed that it had then slowly risen upwards to join the other strange clouds, apparently taking the soldiers with it, after which they all moved off to the north in unison before disappearing from view. The story was first published in the September/October edition of the New Zealand UFO magazine Spaceview in 1965. The story would be somewhat corroborated when in 1966, another New Zealand veteran of the campaign, Gerald Wilde, told Spaceview magazine that although he had not seen the disappearance directly, he had heard many rumors among soldiers that the entire Norfolk Regiment had disappeared into a cloud that had been straddling the ground.

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It was a rather bizarre story that flew in the face of the official conclusion of what had happened to the Vanished Battalion, but it was immediately jumped upon by UFO enthusiasts and became an almost legendary tale among missing persons cases, particularly those suggesting alien abduction. The story took on a life of its own, especially among alien abduction enthusiasts, and would be told again and again in various publications, each time gaining further details or having the details changed somehow. People just couldn’t seem to get enough of this sinister tale of cloud-shaped UFOs whisking away a whole regiment of men in the middle of a battlefield. The story gained such a following amongst the public that the British Ministry of Defence and the Imperial War Museum were constantly deluged with letters demanding the release of top secret files that outlined the mass alien abduction and had been covered up.

So what really happened to the Norfolks and the Sandringhams Company which had been a part of them? Did they die on that battlefield like so many others that day or were they adducted by forces beyond our understanding? Although the cloud story is intriguing and holds so many elements of mystery and suspense, unfortunately it has lent itself to a large amount of criticism of its veracity. The main problem is that it is littered with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, such as giving the wrong dates and even the wrong battalion number. Reichardt claimed that he had seen the weird incident on August 28, 1915, when in fact the attack had been carried out on August 12. He also said it was the 1/4 battalion that had disappeared, when actually the 1/4 had been a sister battalion held in reserve, while it had been the 1/5 battalion that had actually charged into battle and vanished.

The Norfolks

The Norfolks

These errors could perhaps be chalked up to so much time having passed from the alleged incident to when Reichardt first reported it, as well as the fact that he admitted he hadn’t kept any sort of written diary at the time, but things got weirder when a secretive group of US scientists and officials referred to as MJ-12 released a report on the same incident in a paper titled 1st Annual Report, in 1998. The document is apparently an annex to another paper that describes the incident dating to 1952. The 1st Annual Report describes the incident thus:

On August 21 1915, members of the New Zealand Army Corps’ First Field Company signed sworn statements that they saw the One-Fourth Norfolk Regiment disappear in an unusually thick brown cloud which seemed to move and rose upward and vanished. There were no traces of the regiment nor their equipment. No explanation can be found in the historical records of the Imperial War Museum archives.

Interestingly, the report contains some of the same mistakes as the original testimony, as well as all new ones. Again, the battalion is erroneously referred to as the One-Fourth Norfolk Regiment, and furthermore, it states that the story was relayed in 1915 when in fact Reichardt hadn’t come forward with his tale until 1965. This glaring oversight by a panel of what are supposedly top scientists and officials, as well as the fact that the original document is said to have been written in 1952, long before Reinhardt ever came forward, has caused some to declare the MJ-12 report a hoax that was probably cobbled together from the same misinformation perpetuated through books on UFOs, without any effort to check facts.

 

Certainly one of the most meticulous and in-depth investigations into the legend of the Vanashing Battalion was a book called The Vanished Battalion, by historian Nigel McCrery, who managed to uncover some intriguing details of the case. One important fact that was mentioned was that the clergyman who had discovered the field of bodies in 1918 had at the time of his report to the War Office failed to mention that the corpses had all been shot in the head, execution style. This put a sinister spin on things, since it suggested a war crime rather than a field of men who had died valiantly in battle. It was not wholly implausible, as at the time the Turks were infamous for an aversion to taking prisoners of war, a fact that was further corroborated by survivors of other such massacres, who described horrific scenes of brutality committed by the Turkish soldiers. One man who had survived such an incident told of seeing Turkish soldiers ruthlessly gunning down and bayonetting helpless or wounded enemy soldiers not far from where the Norfolks had disappeared. McCrery surmised that withholding the information concerning the bullet wounds had been part of a cover-up designed to hide the fact that these soldiers, many of them from the King’s own proud Sandringhams unit, had not died with valor but rather cowering at the mercy of a sadistic enemy.

McCrery also came to the conclusion that the Allied commander in charge of the Gallipoli Campaign, Sir Ian Hamilton, had also made efforts to dress up the massacre as something more mysterious and unexplained than it truly was. The Gallipoli Campaign had turned out to be one of the Allied forces’ most humiliating defeats, and was marked by a series of botched missions, mishaps, and poor planning. McCrery speculated that, rather than risk his reputation by admitting that his poor leadership and foresight had led to the pointless slaughter of so many men, Hamilton had opted to make it seem like the battalion had disappeared under mysterious circumstances that were beyond his control. In his final dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, Hamilton said:

In the course of the fight, there happened a very mysterious thing. Against the yielding forces of the enemy Colonel Sir H. Beauchamp, a bold, self-confident officer, eagerly pressed forward, followed by the best part of the battalion. The fighting grew hotter [and] at this stage many men were wounded or grew exhausted but the Colonel, with 16 officers and 250 men kept pushing forward, driving the enemy before him, nothing more was seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight or sound. Not one of them ever came back.

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Essentially, Hamilton could have been trying to wash his hands of yet another botched operation under his command by spinning it into a freak occurrence. Intriguingly, there is a report by the Royal Commission on Gallipoli which was compiled in 1916, but not released to the public until 1965. Within the report is an excerpt on a page facing Hamilton’s final dispatch which reads:

By some freak of nature Suvla Bay and Plain were wrapped in a strange mist on the afternoon of 21 August. This was sheer bad luck as we had reckoned on the enemy’s gunners being blinded by the declining sun and upon the Turks’ trenches being shown up by the evening sun with singular clearness. Actually, we could hardly see the enemy lines this afternoon, whereas to the westward targets stood out in strong relief against the luminous light.

Interestingly, this report eerily lines up with a claim made in a 1967 book titled Flying Saucers Are Hostile, in which authors Brad Steiger and Joan Whritrenour claim that 22 more witnesses from the New Zealand military eventually came forward to corroborate Reinhardt’s story, and also they share what they refer to as part of the “official history” of the Gallipoli campaign. In the book the authors state that this “official history” describes how the Norfolks were ensconced within a strange, unseasonable fog which reflected sunlight in such a way as to produce a blinding glare in which artillery personnel had been unable to fire.

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This all seems like it could coincide with the weird clouds that Reinhardt and company claimed to have seen, and it also links up with another account that McCrery describes in his book. On August 21, 1915, the Allied forces launched a massive attack involving around 3,000 men against Hill 60, the very hill mentioned in Reinhardt’s account. During this attack, Sir John Milbanke VC, the commander of a unit called the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, claimed that a strange “pearly mist” had obscured their view of the enemy during the battle. McCrery surmised that what Reinhardt had seen occurred on this day, August 21, not on August 12 as was claimed, and that he had witnessed this strange mist rather than UFOs. McCrery concluded that is quite possible that in the confusion of war, Reinhardt had seen this mist and had heard rumors of the missing battalion from August 12, and subsequently had confused the two events over the years; mixing them into one story of a battalion being swallowed by strange clouds. What Reinhardt had really seen was probably a regiment of Sherwood Rangers on August 21 fighting in this mist, with the identities and dates becoming distorted over time to become the Norfolks and their disappearance on August 12. McCrery theorized that the story was a confused mishmash of the two events and that this confusion, plus undoubtedly embellishment added over the years, had resulted in Reinhardt’s account of the Norfolk’s being abducted by bizarre flying clouds on August 12, 1915. McCrery’s book would later be adapted into a BBC-TV documentary drama about the incident titled All the King’s Men.

So what really happened here? Although the story of a whole battalion being abducted by cloud-shaped UFOs is still bandied about, it seems like the available evidence points to something a little more mundane, yet infinitely more ghastly. The Norfolk’s were likely captured and mercilessly executed, after which they had been left to rot where they lie and their fate covered up by the War Office, as well as the commander of the campaign, Sir Ian Hamilton. The rumors of the disappearing battalion spread, and 50 years later a former New Zealand sapper by the name of Reinhardt comes forward with his half-remembered mixed up story, which then propels itself into legend. While some UFO enthusiasts still like to cling to the abduction story, there seems to be very little to strongly support it. As alluring as it is to think that a whole battalion of was spirited away by alien clouds, there is the very strong likelihood that this is yet another one of many myths and legends that have sprung up from the fog of war.

Nevertheless, the image of a whole battalion charging valiantly into battle to mysteriously vanish and never be heard from again is a compelling and powerful one that certainly captures the imagination. No matter what information we have or how closed the case may seem, it seems that the story of the Vanishing Battalion is an enduring tale that’s just too good to let go, and has certainly become firmly entrenched within the pantheon of great wartime mysteries.

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Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He’s written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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